August 8, 2010 by Amy Elliott Bragg
Night Train to Summer Vacation
So we’re back from out East. We’ll get back to our regularly scheduled tales from Detroit’s history crypt, but today, will you indulge us as we share What We Did On Summer Vacation?
We flew into Baltimore, where I jumped into a waiting car that whisked me to the Delaware coast for a weekend of swimming in the ocean, drinking Dogfish Head and eating buckets of pungent Old Bay-encrusted crabs with friends from college. (The Fiancé, who dislikes beaches, went to D.C. for a few days.) We drove by a lot of lonely historical markers in Maryland’s farm country. I gazed longingly out the window at tiny, toppled churchyard burial grounds. At the beach house, I yammered about Antoine Cadillac, Alexander Hamilton and the War of 1812 until my friends all wandered away, probably to talk amongst themselves about Austrian School economics.
Then I got a ride to Philadelphia, reunited with my betrothed, and settled in for two and a half days of adventures. Really dweeby adventures.
It was my first trip to Philly, but I knew I would love it. Because I’m a lady who loves memorial statues, fusty old buildings, museums, cemeteries and the resting places of historical figures. Though there is much to love about Philadelphia besides those things, Philadelphia not only has those things in spades — it has some of the best of those things in America.
Philadelphia’s Olde City is, literally, an open-air museum. Operated by the National Parks Service, it’s a square mile or so packed with landmarks, historic homes and buildings, museums, gardens, statues of famous or once-famous people, cobblestone carriage ways and interactive “living history” attractions, like the park rangers working the press in Ben Franklin’s former print shop, storyteller stations and more people in Revolutionary-era garb than you can shake a Patriot flag at.
I loved the Franklin Court museum, a delightfully ’70s-flavored underground hall of mirrors beneath the site of Ben Franklin’s former home. There’s a doll theater that plays a three-act show about Franklin’s role in the war for Independence and the framing of the Constitution. And there’s a bank of telephones where you can dial up famous people and they’ll tell you what they thought about the guy. Above ground, an open, life-sized frame shows you where the actual structure of the house used to stand, and paving stones are engraved with passages from letters to and from Ben and his wife Deborah.
At the portrait gallery at the Second Bank, we saw a few familiar faces, including Tadeusz Kosciuszko, disgraced General William Hull, who surrendered Detroit to the British during the War of 1812, and my own first love, Mad Anthony Wayne, who also turned up later in a relief on the goddamn jaw-dropping George Washington Memorial in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
We didn’t make it to the cemetery early enough to spend much time getting to know anyone, but we paid our respects to Mr. Franklin and threw a coin on Dr. Benjamin Rush’s grave (why his tombstone was covered in quarters, while Ben’s is covered in pennies, is not a question I know how to answer).
A routine Google search indicates that Daniel Dupuy was a silversmith. I wish we’d had time to take the tour.
On a late night walk toward Center City through Society Hill, we found the illuminated church yard of Old St. Mary’s, where Commodore John Barry, father of the U.S. Navy, is at rest.
In Washington Square, where mass graves were filled with the bodies of fallen soldiers during the Revolutionary War, a Tomb of the Unknown Solider is illuminated by a blazing eternal flame. Above a statue of George Washington, an inscription reads: “Freedom is a light for which many have died in the dark.”
We paused in front of the tomb late at night, gazing into the fire. There’s a theme park quality to Philadelphia’s historic district that sometimes makes it hard to remember (or believe) that giant things really happened there. But the shadowy tomb in Washington Square reminded me of the very serious consequences of American history — consequences that have shot through time, clear through, to my very own, very real life in the world.
For a similar chill of the serious past, you may want to stop by the War of 1812 Dead marker the next time you find yourself on Washington Boulevard in Detroit. Naturally, in Philly, I idly wondered what an open-air history park in Detroit would feel and look like. Now firmly back at work in my daily life, I realize it would be close to impossible, with everything so spread out, so many buildings long gone, and a multitude of noisy freeways barreling over the pathways of our past.
But maybe once in a while we could haul out some of those classic early-model Fords and, you know, just kind of drive them around all day. In period costume. Add a few roaming characters — Who wants to play Father Richard? We need someone with a sword scar. I guess I’m describing Greenfield Village, but how great would it be to see right in the heart of the city?
Also, can we put up a few more statues? That would be terrific.